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Spiritism is the name properly given to the belief that the living can and do communicate with the spirits of the departed, and to the various practices by which such communication is attempted. It should be carefully distinguished from Spiritualism, the philosophical doctrine which holds, in general, that there is a spiritual order of beings no less real than the material and, in particular, that the soul of man is a spiritual substance. Spiritism, moreover, has taken on a religious character. It claims to prove the preamble of all religions, i.e., the existence of a spiritual world, and to establish a world-wide religion in which the adherents of the various traditional faiths, setting their dogmas aside, can unite. If it has formulated no definite creed, and if its representatives differ in their attitudes toward the beliefs of Christianity, this is simply because Spiritism is expected to supply a new and fuller revelation which will either substantiate on a rational basis the essential Christian dogmas or show that they are utterly unfounded. The knowledge thus acquired will naturally affect conduct, the more so because it is hoped that the discarnate spirits, in making known their condition, will also indicate the means of attaining to salvation or rather of progressing, by a continuous evolution in the other world, to a higher plane of existence and happiness.

THE PHENOMENA

These are classified as physical and psychical. The former include:

  • production of raps and other sounds;
  • movements of objects (tables, chairs) without contact or with contact insufficient to explain the movement:
  • "apports" i.e., apparitions of visible agency to convey them;
  • moulds, i.e., impressions made upon paraffin and similar substances;
  • luminous appearances, i.e., vague glimmerings or light or faces more or less defines;
  • levitation, i.e., raising of objects from the ground by supposed supernormal means;
  • materialization or appearance of a spirit in visible human form;
  • spirit-photography, in which the feature or forms of deceased persons appear on the plate along with the likeness of a living photographed subject.
The psychical, or significative, phenomena are those which express ideas or contain messages. To this class belong:
  • table-rapping in answer to questions;
  • automatic writing; slate-writing;
  • trance-speaking;
  • clairvoyance;
  • descriptions of the spirit-world; and
  • communications from the dead.

HISTORY

For an account of Spiritistic practices in antiquity see NECROMANCY. The modern phase was ushered in by the exhibitions of mesmerism and clairvoyance. In its actual form, however, Spiritism dates from the year 1848 and from the experiences of the Fox family at Hydesville, and later at Rochester, in New York State. Strange "knockings" were heard in the house, pieces of furniture were moved about as though by invisible hands, and the noises became so troublesome that sleep was impossible. At length the "rapper" began to answer questions, and a code of signals was arranged to facilitate communication. It was also found that to receive messages special qualifications were needed; these were possessed by Catherine and Margaret Fox, who are therefore regarded as the first "mediums" of modern times.

Similar disturbances occurred in other parts of the country, notably at Stratford, Connecticut, in the house of Rev. Dr. Phelps, a Presbyterian minister, where the manifestations (1850-51) were often violent and the spirit-answers blasphemous. In 1851 the Fox girls were visited in Buffalo by three physicians who were professors in the university of that city. As a result of their examination the doctors declared that the "raps" were simply "crackings" of the knee-joints. But this statement did not lessen either the popular enthusiasm or the interest of more serious persons.

The subject was taken up by men like Horace Greeley, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Robert Hare, professor of chemistry in the University of Pennsylvania, and John Worth Edmonds, a judge of the Supreme Court of New York State. Conspicuous among the Spiritists was Andrew Jackson Davis, whose work, "The Principles of Nature" (1847), dictated by him in trance, contained a theory of the universe, closely resembling the Swedenborgian. Spiritism also found earnest advocates among clergymen of various denominations, especially the Universalists ; it appealed strongly to many people who had lost all religious belief in a future life; and it was welcomed by those who were then agitating the question of a new social organization--the pioneers of modern Socialism. So widespread was the belief in Spiritism that in 1854 Congress was petitioned to appoint a scientific commission for the investigation of the phenomena. The petition, which bore some 13,000 signatures, was laid on the table, and no action was taken.

In Europe the way had been prepared for Spiritism by the Swedenborgian movement and by an epidemic of table-turning which spread from the Continent to England and invaded all classes of society. It was still a fashionable diversion when, in 1852, two mediums, Mrs. Hayden and Mrs. Roberts, came from America to London, and held séances which attracted the attention of scientists as well as popular interest. Faraday, indeed, in 1853 showed that the table movements were due to muscular action, and Dr. Carpenter gave the same explanation; but many thoughtful persons, notably among the clergy, held to the Spiritistic interpretation. This was accepted also by Robert Owen, the socialist, while Professor De Morgan, the mathematician, in his account of a sitting with Mrs. Hayden, was satisfied that "somebody or some spirit was reading his thoughts". The later development in England was furthered by mediums who came from America: Daniel Dunglas Home (Hume) in 1855, the Davenport Brothers in 1864, and Henry Slade in 1876. Among the native mediums, Rev. William Stainton Moses became prominent in 1872, Miss Florence Cook in the same year, and William Eglinton in 1886. Spiritism was advocated by various periodical publications, and defended in numerous works some of which were said to have been dictated by the spirits themselves, e.g., the "Spirit Teachings" of Stainton Moses, which purport to give an account of conditions in the other world and form a sort of Spiritistic theology. During this period also, scientific opinion on the subject was divided. While Professors Huxley and Tyndall sharply denounced Spiritism in practice and theory, Mr. (later Sir Wm.) Crookes and Dr. Alfred Russell Wallace regarded the phenomena as worthy of serious investigation. The same view was expressed in the report which the Dialectical Society published in 1871 after an inquiry extending over eighteen months, and at the Glasgow meeting of the British Association in 1876 Professor Barrett, F.R.S., concluded his account of the phenomena he had observed by urging the appointment of a committee of scientific men for the systematic investigation of such phenomena.

The growth of Spiritism on the Continent was marked by similar transitions from popular curiosity to serious inquiry. As far back as 1787, the Exegetic and Philanthropic Society of Stockholm, adhering to the Swedenborgian view, had interpreted the utterances of "magnetized" subjects as messages from the spirit world. This interpretation gradually won favour in France and Germany ; but it was not until 1848 that Cahagnet published at Paris the first volume of his "Arcanes de la vie future dévoilées", containing what purported to be communications from the dead. The excitement aroused in Paris by table-turning and rapping led to an investigation by Count Agénor de Gasparin, whose conclusion ("Des Tables tournantes", (Paris, 1854) was that the phenomena originated in some physical force of the human body. Professor Thury of Geneva ("Les Tables tournantes", 1855) concurred in this explanation. Baron de Guldenstubbe ("La Réalité des Esprits" Paris, 1857), on the contrary, declared his belief in the reality of spirit intervention, and M. Rivail, known later as Allan Kardec, published the "spiritualistic philosophy " in "Le Livre des Esprits" (Paris, 1853), which became a guide-book to the whole subject.

In Germany also Spiritism was an outgrowth from "animal magnetism". J.H. Jung in his "Theorie der Geisterkunde" declared that in the state of trance the soul is freed from the body, but he regarded the trance itself as a diseased condition. Among the earliest German clairvoyants was Frau Frederica Hauffe, the "Seeress of Prevorst", whose experiences were related by Justinus Kerner in "Die Seherin von Prevorst" (Stuttgart, 1829). In its later development Spiritism was represented in scientific and philosophical circles by men of prominence, e.g., Ulrici, Fichte, Züllner, Fechner, and Wm. Weber. The last-named three conducted (1877-8) a series of experiments with the American medium Slade at Leipzig. The results were published in Züllner's "Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen" (cf. Massey, "Transcendental Physics ", London, 1880, in which the portions relating to spiritism are translated). Though considered important at the time, this investigation, owing to lack of caution and accuracy, cannot be regarded as a satisfactory test. (Cf. "Report of the Seybert Commission", Philadelphia, 1887-, which also contains an account of an investigation conducted at the University of Pennsylvania with Slade and other mediums.)

The foregoing outline shows that modern Spiritism within a generation had passed beyond the limits of a merely popular movement and had challenged the attention of the scientific world. It had, moreover, brought about serious divisions among men of science. For those who denied the existence of a soul distinct from the organism it was a foregone conclusion that there could be no such communications as the Spiritists claimed. This negative view, of course, is still taken by all who accept the fundamental ideas of Materialism. But apart from any such a priori considerations, the opponents of Spiritism justified their position by pointing to innumerable cases of fraud which were brought to light either through closer examination of the methods employed or through the admissions of the mediums themselves.

In spite, however, of repeated exposure, there occurred phenomena which apparently could not be ascribed to trickery of any sort. The inexplicable character of these the sceptics attributed to faulty observation. The Spiritistic practices were simply set down as a new chapter in the long history of occultism, magic, and popular superstition. On the other hand, a certain number of thinkers felt obliged to confess that, after making due allowances for the element of fraud, there remained some facts which called for a more systematic investigation. In 1869 the London Dialectical Society appointed a committee of thirty-three members "to investigate the phenomena alleged to be spiritual manifestations, and to report thereon". The committee's report (1871) declares that "motion may be produced in solid bodies without material contact, by some hitherto unrecognized force operating within an undefined distance from the human organism, an beyond the range of muscular action"; and that "this force is frequently directed by intelligence". In 1882 there was organized in London the "Society for Psychical Research" for the scientific examination of what its prospectus terms "debatable phenomena". A motive for investigation was supplied by the history of hypnotism, which had been repeatedly ascribed to quackery and deception. Nevertheless, patient research conducted by rigorous methods had shown that beneath the error and imposture there lay a real influence which was to be accounted for, and which finally was explained on the theory of suggestion. The progress of Spiritism, it was thought, might likewise yield a residuum of fact deserving scientific explanation.

The Society for Psychical Research soon counted among its members distinguished representatives of science and philosophy in England and America; numerous associations with similar aims and methods were organized in various countries. The "Proceedings" of the Society contain detailed reports of investigations in Spiritism and allied subjects, and a voluminous literature, expository and critical, has been created. Among the most notable works are: "Phantasms of the Living" by Gurney, Myers, and Podmore (London, 1886); F.W.H. Myers, "Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death" (London, 1903); and Sir Oliver Lodge, F.R.S., "The Survival of Man" (New York, 1909). In recent publications prominence is given to experiments with the mediums Mrs. Piper of Boston and Eusapia Palladino of Italy ; and important contributions to the literature have been made by Professor Wm. James of Harvard, Dr. Richard Hodgson of Boston, Professor Charles Richet ( University of Paris ), Professor Henry Sidgwick (Cambridge University), Professor Th. Flournoy (University of Geneva), Professor Morselli (University of Genoa ), Professor Cesare Lombroso ( University of Turin ), Professor James H. Hyslop (Columbia University), Professor Wm. R. Newbold (University of Pennsylvania ). While some of these writers maintain a critical attitude, others are outspoken in favour of Spiritism, and a few (Myers, James), lately deceased, arranged before death to establish communication with their surviving associates.

HYPOTHESES

To explain the phenomena which after careful investigation and exclusion of fraud are regarded as authentic, three hypotheses have been proposed. The telepathic hypothesis takes as its starting-point the so-called subliminal consciousness. This, it is claimed, is subject to disintegration in such wise that segments of it may impress another mind (the percipient) even at a distance. The personality is liberated, so to speak, from the organism and invades the soul of another. A medium, on this hypothesis, would obtain information by thought-transference either from the minds of persons present at the séance or from other minds concerning whom the sitters know nothing. This view, it is held, would accord with the recognized facts of hypnosis and with the results of experimental telepathy ; and it would explain what appear to be cases of possession. Similar to this is the hypothesis of psychical radiations which distinguishes in man the material body, the soul, and an intermediate principle, the "perispirit". This is a subtle fluid, or astral body, which in certain persons (mediums) can escape from the material organism and thus form a "double". It also accompanied the soul after death and it is the means by which communication is established with the peri-spirit of the mediums. The Spiritistic hypothesis maintains that the communications are received from disembodied spirits. Its advocates declare that telepathy is insufficient to account for all the facts, that its sphere of influence would have to be enlarged so as to include all the mental states and memories of living persons, and that even with such extension it would not explain the selective character of the phenomena by which facts relevant for establishing the personal identity of the departed are discriminated from those that are irrelevant. Telepathy at most may be the means by which discarnate spirits act upon the minds of living persons.

For those who admit that the manifestations proceed from intelligences other than that of the medium, the next question in order is whether these intelligences are the spirits of the departed or beings that have never been embodied in human forms. The reply had often been found difficult even by avowed believers in Spiritism, and some of these have been forced to admit the action of extraneous or non-human intelligences. This conclusion is based on several sorts of evidence:

  • the difficulty of establishing spirit-identity, i.e., of ascertaining whether the communicator is actually the personality he or it purports to be;
  • the love of personation on the part of the spirits which leads them to introduce themselves as celebrities who once lived on earth, although on closer questioning they show themselves quite ignorant of those whom they personate;
  • the trivial character of the communications, so radically opposed to what would be expected from those who have passed into the other world and who naturally should be concerned to impart information on the most serious subjects;
  • the contradictory statements which the spirits make regarding their own condition, the relations of God and man, the fundamental precepts of morality;
  • finally the low moral tone which often pervades these messages from spirits who pretend to enlighten mankind.
These deceptions and inconsistencies have been attributed by some authors to the subliminal consciousness (Flournoy), by others to spirits of a lower order, i.e., below the plane of humanity (Stainton Moses ), while a third explanation refers them quite frankly to demonic intervention (Raupert, "Modern Spiritism", St. Louis, 1904; cf. Grasset, "The Marvels beyond Science," tr. Tubeuf, New York, 1910). For the Christian believer this third view acquired special significance from the fact that the alleged communications antagonize the essential truths of religion, such as the Divinity of Christ, atonement and redemption, judgment and future retribution, while they encourage agnosticism, pantheism, and a belief in reincarnation.

Spiritism indeed claims that it alone furnishes an incontestable proof of immortality, a scientific demonstration of the future life that far surpasses any philosophical deduction of Spiritualism, while it gives the death-blow to Materialism. This claim, however, rests upon the validity of the hypothesis that the communications come from disembodied spirits ; it gets no support from the telepathic hypothesis or from that of demonic intervention. If either of the latter should be verified the phenomena would be explained without solving or even raising the problem of human immortality. If, again, it were shown that the argument based on the data of normal consciousness and the nature of the soul cannot stand the test of criticism, the same test would certainly be fatal to a theory drawn from the mediumistic utterances which are not only the outcome of abnormal conditions, but are also open to widely different interpretations. Even where all suspicion of fraud or collusion is removed--and this is seldom the case--a critical investigator will cling to the idea that phenomena which now seem inexplicable may eventually, like so many other marvels, be accounted for without having recourse to the Spiritistic hypothesis. Those who are convinced, on philosophical grounds, of the soul's immortality may say that communications from the spirit world, if any such there be, go to strengthen their conviction; but to abandon their philosophy and stake all on Spiritism would be more than hazardous; it would, indirectly at least, afford a pretext for a more complete rejection of soul and immortality. In other words, if Spiritism were the sole argument for a future life, Materialism, instead of being crushed, would triumph anew as the only possible theory for science and common sense.

DANGERS

To this risk of philosophical error must be added the dangers, mental and moral, which Spiritistic practices involve.

Whatever the explanations offered for the medium's "powers", their exercise sooner or later brings about a state of passivity which cannot but injure the mind. This is readily intelligible in the hypothesis of an invasion by extraneous spirits, since such a possession must weaken and tend to efface the normal personality. But similar results may be expected if, as the alternate hypothesis maintains, a disintegration of the one personality takes place. In either case, it is not surprising that the mental balance should be disturbed, and self-control impaired or destroyed. Recourse to Spiritism frequently produces hallucinations and other aberrations, especially in subjects who are predisposed to insanity ; and even those who are otherwise normal expose themselves to severe physical and mental strain (cf. Viollet, "Le spiritisme dans ses rapports avec la folie", Paris, 1908).

More serious still is the danger of moral perversion. If to practise or encourage deception of any sort is reprehensible, the evil is certainly greater when fraud is resorted to in the inquiry concerning the future life. But apart from any intention to deceive, the methods employed would undermine the foundations of morality, either by producing a disintegration of personality or by inviting the invasion of an extraneous intelligence. It may be that the medium "yields, perhaps, innocently at first to the promptings of an impulse which may come to him as from a higher power, or that he is moved by an instinctive compulsion to aid in the development of his automatic romance--in any case, if he continues to abet and encourage this automatic prompting, it is not likely that he can long retain both honesty and sanity unimpaired. The man who looks on at his hand doing a thing, but acquits himself of responsibility for the thing done, can hardly claim to be considered as a moral agent; and the step is short to instigating and repeating a like action in the future, without the excuse of an overmastering impulse . . . To attend the séances of a professional medium is perhaps at worst to countenance a swindle; to watch the gradual development of innocent automatism into physical mediumship may be to assist at a process of moral degeneration" (Podmore, "Modern Spiritualism ", II, 326 sqq.).

ACTION OF THE CHURCH

As Spiritism has been closely allied with the practices of "animal magnetism" and hypnotism, these several classes of phenomena have also been treated under the same general head in the discussions of theologians and in the decisions of ecclesiastical authority. The Congregation of the Inquisition, 25 June, 1840, decreed :

Where all error, sorcery, and invocation of the demon, implicit or explicit, is excluded, the mere use of physical means which are otherwise lawful, is not morally forbidden, provided it does not aim at unlawful or evil results. But the application of purely physical principles and means to things or effects that are really supernatural, in order to explain these on physical grounds, is nothing else than unlawful and heretical deception.

This decision was reiterated on 28 July, 1847, and a further decree was issued on 30 July, 1856, which, after mentioning discourses about religion, evocation of departed spirits and "other superstitious practices" of Spiritism, exhorts the bishops to put forth every effort for the suppression of these abuses "in order that the flock of the Lord may be protected against the enemy, the deposit of faith safeguarded, and the faithful preserved from moral corruption". The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866), while making due allowance for fraudulent practice in Spiritism, declares that some at least of the manifestations are to be ascribed to Satanic intervention, and warns the faithful against lending any support to Spiritism or even, out of curiosity, attending séances (Decreta, nn. 33-41). The council points out, in particular, the anti-Christian character of Spiritistic teachings concerning religion, and characterizes them as an attempt to revive paganism and magic. A decree of the Holy Office, 30 March, 1898, condemns Spiritistic practices, even though intercourse with the demon be excluded and communication sought with good spirits only. In all these documents the distinction is clearly drawn between legitimate scientific investigation and superstitious abuses. What the Church condemns in Spiritism is superstition with its evil consequences for religion and morality.


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